teaching technical communication A Decade of Research: Assessing Change in the Technical Communication Classroom using Online Portfolios Betty Smith, author of the best selling novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, an example of American working class literatureThe Steel Bible: A Case Study of 20th Century Technical Communication
Biography of Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Publication of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the best selling novel by Betty Smith, published by Harper & Row in 1942 American literature
Literary context of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, within the context of working class American literature
Tomorrow Will Be Better, a novel by Betty Smith
Maggie Now, a novel by Betty Smith
Joy in the Morning, a novel by Betty Smith
Bibliography of the writing of Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Maggie-Now, Part I

Third Novel

Smith's third novel was published ten years after her second. During the long silence she divorced the "Frankie" figure, Joe Jones, and she married Bob Finch, who became a central character in Maggie-Now. During this time she was largely out of contact with her publishers, Harper & Brothers. John Fischer corresponded with Smith about routine matters associated with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, such as the 25 cent reprint published in 1951, the Literary Guild's "25th Anniversary" limited edition, the sale of the Yugoslavian and Burmese rights, and a radio broadcast made to sparsely settled areas of Australia. In Fischer's letters to Smith, he is continually asking about her, but she answers through letters to his wife Betty, to whom she sent tickets to her Broadway show. By now Smith didn't have to talk to Fischer--Helen Strauss, the head and creator of the literature division at the William Morris Agency was her agent and did negotiating on her behalf 1.

American Literary Agents

Frank MacGregor at Harper & Brothers knew that Smith was dissatisfied with her agent, Frances Pindyck at Leland Hayward, and suggested to Smith that she consider Helen Strauss, who had formed a literary department at William Morris. James West writes:

Most American publishers eventually realized that literary agents could be useful--that they could take over many time-consuming duties for the editor. Agents came to function more and more as editors had once functioned. They answered mail, secured books and research materials, performed errands, renewed copyrights, and assisted authors with their tax returns. Indeed the functions of the editor and the agent eventually became almost identical. . . . (99)

American Literary Marketplace

Thus, Betty Smith's life as a writer illustrated the gradual shift in the American literary marketplace from direct author-editor relations to author-agent-editor relations. Helen Strauss was probably the most powerful literary agent during her time. She had secured a working commitment from Harper & Brothers, and they referred all their writers to her. She recalled, in her memoirs, "I enjoyed an enviable personal and professional relationship with the publishing house of Harper, first through Frank MacGregor, then Cass Canfield, who was to become chairman of the board (182). Strauss recalls her first meeting with Betty Smith in her autobiography A Talent for Luck:

We met for dinner at the Savoy-Plaza, and as we were seated she looked me over critically and announced, testily, "You know, I can't stand women." Then, over the final cup of coffee, she added, "Well, you're not like the rest of them. I like you. I can't stand women, but I like you." We became close friends and I represented her until I departed the business. (250)

Agreeing to let Strauss represent her interests was probably one of the wisest moves that Smith ever made: Strauss secured her financial future and encouraged her to work in her own manner for the rest of her life. Strauss took over the business end: she was responsible "to recycle a client's writings, to make them yield income repeatedly over a period of years through various forms of republication, adaptation, and performance" (West 102). Strauss understood the ins and outs of every aspect of the mass media, and how to maximize the profits from each venture. Maggie-Now was Smith's first book contract mediated by Strauss, and Smith was overjoyed. She wrote to Strauss:

In "Tree" contract, wherever print said 10% to publisher, 90% to author, it was crossed out the figures 50-50 inserted. Also I was so very pleased when I found you had got me all of the monies that might come from foreign publications. I had always thought the publisher automatically got half 2.

Smith concluded: "The commission the agency gets is too small payment for what you got for me. I thank you sincerely, Helen." If Smith lost money that she could have made on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it is likely that she made back in subsequent years by having Helen Strauss as her agent.

Reluctant Author

But Smith was having difficulty getting started again. Finally Fischer wrote to Smith "It's been such a long time since we've heard from you that I couldn't help worrying a little about you" 3 and Smith replied:

I should have answered your letter long ago. But in the last few months I've developed a sort of dread of writing anything. I sit at the typewriter to write and I begin to feel ill. I think each day of the letters I should answer and it disturbs my day. Yet I cannot make myself sit down to type 4.

Smith was afraid to start. She was probably afraid that her next novel would fail like her last. According to an interview, Betty Smith did not plan the writing of Maggie-Now. After her auto accident in 1952 she lost partial use of her fingers on her right hand, and she started typing again, as therapy for her hands. She told Newsweek "Instead of just writing my name endlessly . . . I began writing dialogue. Later I sent some of this first dialogue to an agent. I was stunned when he suggested I ask for a $10,000 advance" 5. Then Smith kept typing away.

Although Fischer was made editor of Harper's Magazine in 1953, he continued on as Smith's editor. She sent him some pages of her newly developing novel and he sensed a problem. He wrote to her:

I assume that as the story develops it will take on a somewhat more cheerful tone -- as in the case of the two earlier books -- and I hope that in the end it will leave the reader with a warm and hopeful feeling. You will remember, perhaps, that the only major criticism we got on TOMORROW WILL BE BETTER concerned the somewhat gloomy key in which it ended 6.

This was exactly the wrong tack to take with Betty Smith, who had suffered more from her in-house criticism of Tomorrow Will Be Better than from all the reviews. For the next two years Smith did not write to Fischer at all.

Editorial Infidelity

By 1956, Smith was back on track, however. Through Strauss she sent the message to Frank MacGregor that she no longer wanted Fischer as her editor. MacGregor gave her Evan Thomas as an editor, a young man who came from a family of publishers. Smith accepted the change. She was mainly worried about the reception of her manuscript, one-third of which had been written. She wrote to MacGregor: "I'll be waiting with great intensity to learn what you think of it" 7. In September she sent the manuscript to Harper & Brothers through Strauss, and immediately MacGregor telegrammed her, insincerely, "CONGRATULATIONS. YOU COULDN'T BE HAPPIER THAN WE ARE. LOTS OF LOVE" 8. But by now Smith was no longer the naive novelist who implicitly trusted her publisher--she was hiding out at Nag's Head, and the telegram didn't find her.

Harper & Brothers quickly focussed their best editorial efforts on their bestselling novelist: Maggie-Now became a cooperative effort. Elizabeth Lawrence read book in secret and made a thorough critique which was subsequently used by Evan Thomas to guide Betty Smith. The main point of Lawrence's extensive critique was: "It might save the author revision trouble if she were reminded now to hew to her best and most original characters, let all the action spring from and return to them" 9. Thomas used the text Lawrence had written to send a long letter to Smith regarding changes she should make, and before he sent it he showed it to Lawrence with a note: "Is this okay? I have included everything in your notes . . " 10. Lawrence disagreed with Thomas only on one point -- Thomas thinks that Maggie's younger bother Denny should be a main character and her father Patrick should be downplayed, and Lawrence thinks the opposite: "[Patrick's] changing relationship to Maggie-Now is interesting" 11. Lawrence also wrote: "There's time. Just encourage her to go more deeply into the people she has rather than depend on new ones for motion and variety." Thomas' letter was sent to the Betty Smith operations team, Lawrence, MacGregor, and Strauss.

Novel in Transition

Whether or not any of this criticism and guidance helped Smith is anyone's guess. One thing that did help Smith was a visit, in January of 1957, from her old Harper & Brothers associate, Ramona Herdman, who had become Mrs. John Craddock. Herdman had done the public relations for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and now she was partially retired and on her way to Florida, but she and Smith sat and read and discussed the novel. It was at this point that Smith decided to make Maggie childless, thereby deciding the fate of that character: Maggie was doomed to the same limited, pathetic routine that had been Margy's lot in Tomorrow Will Be Better. This is a central aspect of Maggie-Now's message, and it is significant that Smith came to the decision on her own with the support of a good friend.

Evan Thomas

Smith's relationship with Evan Thomas was ambivalent. When she sent him the first revised part of the manuscript, she asked him not to criticize it because she would never finish the novel 12. When Thomas received the manuscript, he sent it straight to Lawrence, and she wrote an enthusiastic one-page analysis:

Congratulations to BS. She has brought off more than she promised in the earlier version, and it is very good indeed. If someone wants to predict that this will be a better book than The Tree, I wouldn't quibble, though it doesn't reach comparable heights of hilarity. I see no reason why the public shouldn't love it. BS is writing this with her intuitions rather than her mind, and it's all to the good 13.

Lawrence was excited about the possibilities of Maggie being an example of a "giver" rather than a "taker," a paragon of womanly virtue: she ends by saying "The implication being that Maggie, as one of the strong ones of the world, is also one of the fortunate" 14. This must have been an ideological image popular at the time, because it struck them as being reasonable in 1957; today Maggie seems unreal.

After receiving the first section of the novel, Thomas flew down to Chapel Hill to discuss it with Smith. After meeting with him, Smith lapsed back into reclusion. A month later Thomas wrote a memo to MacGregor: "Have you had any word lately from Betty Smith? If we don't hear something from her pretty soon, shouldn't one of us call her or something?" 15. He called her but Smith did not pick up the phone. Smith was out at Nag's Head with Bob Finch. Two months later Thomas telegrammed her: "I would not be bothering you except that I want to know that you are okay" 16. Smith's letter crossed the telegram to Thomas, in which she said she had 350 pages done and would revise no more. She explained "I didn't call back because I surmised the call was from Harper's asking where is the manuscript, and since I didn't have it entirely finished, I didn't want to explain, etc. etc." 17. It was at this point that she wrote: "I have what I think is a fine ending" 18.

The chase was on: Harper & Brothers started perusing Smith, trying to get the novel published as soon as possible; Smith used all the avoidance tactics that she knew. When they called, she didn't answer the phone. When she didn't answer the phone, they sent telegrams. When she didn't let them know where she was, the telegrams had to chase back and forth between Chapel Hill and Nag's Head. Thomas sent a telegram equivocating "THIS RUSH OF PHONES, TELEGRAMS AND LETTERS IS NOT FOR THE SAKE OF TIME PRESSURE (WE WILL PUBLISH JUST AS HAPPILY NEXT YEAR AS THIS) BUT TO MAKE SURE YOU KNOW MAC'S HELEN'S AND MY WILLINGNESS TO BE OF ALL POSSIBLE HELP" 19. Smith sent one back "SORRY. MANY COMPLICATIONS WITH ME" 20. She sent him more pages, but declined to let him know where she was living.

Then Thomas upped the ante: he telegrammed to say that the Literary Guild would consider making the novel a book club selection if they could see the rest of the manuscript or a summary of the manuscript right away, no matter what shape it was in. He apologized "THIS IS A DREADFUL WAY TO TREAT A WRITER BUT YOU KNOW HOW IT IS" 21. Smith telegraphed back, promising to have the material by Monday. However, Smith kept working away at her own pace. A week later Thomas telegrammed with specific suggestions for the ending, tempting "If we can complete in two weeks book will be March selection" 22. Smith never did send her manuscript or a summary, but the Literary Guild made it their monthly selection anyway.

By October of 1957, Maggie-Now was finally finished. Although her letters and telegrams were friendly, Smith was still not speaking directly with Harper & Brothers: she mailed the completed manuscript, 786 pages, directly to Helen Strauss, who then sent it to Thomas. The novel had been going directly from Smith's typewriter into the galleys. Thomas had held off sending Smith the proofs, while she was still trying to complete the novel, only at her insistence. When Thomas finally had the completed novel in his hands, he began sending her the page proofs, and Margaret Hoyle joined the Betty Smith team to assess the accuracy of the chronology. Smith made what changes were necessary, and then, when she received the last batch of pages, discovered that Thomas had done some cutting and revising of his own. Smith telegrammed Frank MacGregor directly:


Thomas had written a letter to Smith mentioning what he had done: "What cutting I did was necessitated by a feeling on the part of myself and various other editors that the book was dragging in the end - only in the sense that the author could not seem to let go of her people" 24. In a later telegram Thomas admitted "I really dropped that ball" 25.

Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?

Harper & Brothers had reason to rush the writing of Maggie-Now. The Literary Guild had a March slot available, and the advance sale was 44,000 copies. Maggie-Now was published in February of 1958, and Smith did a shortened version of her usual publication rounds because Finch was home sick in Chapel Hill. She was still irritated by Harper & Brothers and took them to task, through Strauss, for not doing enough publicity on the novel. In April she wrote to Helen a list of complaints which Helen dutifully forwarded to Frank MacGregor. Smith wrote: "Harper's seems to have changed. Now the format seems to be a lot of books gotten out and concentrating on each new one for a couple of weeks until the next book comes along" 26. Thomas sent back a specific list of advertising costs, saying that they overspent their appropriation by $2,000. Gene Young, Evan Thomas' secretary, remembers that Smith was difficult to work with, she had a sense of injustice and felt that people weren't fair to her. Consequently "Harpers was scared of her" 27. Smith's relationship with her publisher was never again the close and paternal friendship she had with Eugene Saxton and Elizabeth Lawrence. For continuation, see Maggie-Now, Part II.


1. Strauss orchestrated the new publications, including a hardcover edition of the Broadway script.

2. Betty Smith, letter to Helen Strauss, 17 Oct. 1956.

3. John Fischer, letter to Betty Smith, 4 Jan. 1952.

4. Betty Smith, letter to John Fischer, 10 July 1952.

5. Newsweek 24 Feb. 1958.

6. John Fischer, letter to Betty Smith, 28 Jan. 1953.

7 Betty Smith, letter to Frank MacGregor, 17 July 1956.

8. Frank MacGregor, telegram to Betty Smith, 26 Sept 1956.

9. Elizabeth Lawrence, interoffice memo to Evan Thomas, Sept. 1956.

10. Evan Thomas, note to Elizabeth Lawrence, 28 Sept. 1956.

11. Elizabeth Lawrence, handwritten answer on note from Evan Thomas, 28 Sept. 1956.

12. April 8th, Smith sends Evan manuscript.

13. Elizabeth Lawrence, memo to Evan Thomas, 11 April 1957.

14. Elizabeth Lawrence, memo to Evan Thomas, 11 April 1957.

15. Evan Thomas, memo to Frank MacGregor, 31 May 1957.

16. Evan Thomas, telegram to Betty Smith, 22 July 1957.

17. Betty Smith, letter to Evan Thomas, 22 July 1957.

18. Betty Smith, letter to Evan Thomas, 22 July 1957.

19. Evan Thomas, telegram to Betty Smith, 4 Sept. 1957.

20. Betty Smith, telegram to Evan Thomas, 5 Sept. 1957.

21. Evan Thomas, telegram to Betty Smith, 12 Sept. 1957.

22. Evan Thomas, telegram to Betty Smith, 19 Sept. 1957.

23. Betty Smith, telegram to Frank MacGregor, 26 Nov. 1957.

24. Evan Thomas, letter to Betty Smith, 13 Nov. 1957.

25. Evan Thomas, telegram to Betty Smith, 2 Dec. 1957.

26. Helen Strauss, letter to Frank MacGregor, 21 April 1958.

27. Gene Young, phone interview, 17 Sept. 1992.

Maggie-Now, Part II

steel bible carnegie bureau instruction history iron Carol Siri Johnson © 2003
Contact: carol@ringwoodmanor.com